Sometimes life can seem like an endless drag. The same old repetitive routines. The same job. The same partner. The same path with nothing different in sight until the end. There are quite a few ways to escape that middle-aged trapped feeling, but while some might buy a new car or stretch as far as getting a wild new haircut or a tattoo, few would go down the path of Kim Barker, who in her forties swapped her newsroom job for a war journalist role in the ‘suck’ of Afghanistan.
Loosely based on her book ‘The Taliban Shuffle’, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot drops us, and Tina Fey’s Kim Baker (now minus an r), into the Wild West world of the Afghan war in 2003, when the world is already beginning to lose interest in the conflict. We follow Kim for the next three years as she goes from naive desk jockey to frontline reporter. She chases the next high, the stories that will keep Afghanistan from being a forgotten war and keep her in the crazy world of Kabul that she soon comes to see as her home. Surrounding Kim are her Kiwi bodyguard Nic (Stephen Peacocke), straight-talking Brit reporter Tanya (Margot Robbie), freelance photographer and loveable Scottish rogue Iain (Martin Freeman), and Afghan fixer Fahim (Christopher Abbott).
The film follows a structure of comedy/drama/comedy/drama that mirrors the strange pattern that makes up the daily life of the reporters. In the ‘Kabubble’ they party like the world is ending, like there are no rules, with crazy booze and drug-filled blowouts. They then wake up hungover and travel into the stunning but deadly Afghan countryside to talk with warlords, or to follow the marines as they come into contact with hostiles. Then it’s back to base to get wild again. This natural and synthetic adrenaline, dopamine and endorphin-fuelled lifestyle is seductive and dangerous, and soon Kim has to face her growing addiction to the behaviour.
Tina Fey doesn’t breakout from her recognisable character from other roles (you can never fully escape Liz Lemon), but the fact that her character is funny, down-to-earth and relatable makes her the perfect audience surrogate. Her skills as a comedic actor slightly highlight her deficiencies in the dramatic, but the character wouldn’t be half as engaging without them. Throughout the film, those talents connect nicely with those of Freeman and Alfred Molina’s Afghan government official, while also nurturing along the burgeoning comedic talents of Robbie. The standout performance though has to be the unrecognisable Abbott (Girls), who brings a real feeling of warmth and depth to Fahim, and grounds the story in the country and its people. While there are certainly important questions to be asked as to why two white men were cast in the central Afghan parts, you cannot blame the actors themselves and let it distract from the good work that both do.
The film only skirts the surface of the really interesting and political questions that could be asked of Afghanistan and the conflict – warlords, women’s rights, the role of the Americans and private companies, the feelings of the local people, government corruption – but perhaps that’s to be expected from something that’s presented as a real outsiders view, a cynical take on a desperate situation. It’s clear that this is a first unsteady step for directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa to marry satire and the dramatic with their experience in off-beat rom-coms like I Love You Phillip Morris and Crazy, Stupid, Love. That the film tacitly acknowledges that it knows this is the story of a white American woman in a place where the stories of the real people aren’t being told, doesn’t excuse it from picking up interesting threads and then dropping them when it finds they’re attached to a heavy Afghan carpet. The absurdness, the chaos, the tragedy and the extremes of what was happening in Afghanistan that are highlighted in the book should be the focus, and things like the love interest subplot should be left in their previous movies. Otherwise, the pace of the film is well handled, and Xavier Grobet’s cinematography gives an immediacy to the action and street scenes.
Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is a film that manages to somehow mask its weaknesses. The sheer damn likeability of the cast distracts you from the fact that this could have been a really biting satire, when in fact it’s a soft touch.
[This post first appeared on Filmblerg]